A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Moby Whatever

“I’m reading an interesting book,” Jay told me.  “It’s called Railsea.  I think you’d like it.  It’s hard to describe, exactly, but it’s full of allusions to Moby Dick.”

I looked up from my laptop.  I’d been writing.  Ok, no, I’d been thinking about writing, but mostly dinking around on the internet.  “Oh.  Um…”  I hesitated, my ambivalence practically leaking out my ears.  I ought to be eager, I thought.  Why wasn’t I thrilled?  I’m always looking for book recommendations, and my husband was touting this one as fabulously literary.  And -- I’m a literary-type person… aren’t I? 
Or… not.  Oh, I like to think of myself that way.  It’s part of my self-image as Renaissance Woman and Utter Dork.  Moreover, a lot of people seem to assume that I’m wonderfully well-read, given my fancy-pants predilection for ten-dollar words, not to mention my more generalized cerebral nerdery.  But, faced with the prospect of a whole novel’s worth of references to Herman Melville’s greatest work, I was uncomfortably aware that my biblio-intellectual aspirations were more pretense than reality.  
I’ve never read Moby Dick.

This doesn’t seem like such a terrible admission, I suppose.  Although Melville is extolled in the lit-crit world for his writing talent, plenty of other folks agree that he had an even greater talent for inducing catatonia with his 135 chapters about monomania… and whales… and ships… and some more about whales.  So, yeah, I gave up on him -- so what? 
The problem is, my liter-idiocy regarding Melville is just the tip of the whale’s fluke.  A quick perusal of “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time” – as selected by The Guardian/Observer -- reveals the depths of my shame.  I have not read Don Quixote, although I can make vague references to tilting at windmills.  I also skipped Robinson Crusoe; while I’d like to think I have some sort of clue about wilderness survival, I doubt my strategies would include naming someone “Friday” and converting him to Christianity.  I never got past the first couple of chapters of The Brothers Karamazov or Wuthering Heights, although both mutely torment me from my bookshelves.  I’d rather wade through ice floes on the Yukon River than make any attempt to wade through Pilgrim’s Progress.
I’ve read a few from the list, but I suspect that titles absorbed under duress don’t count for much.  The Scarlet Letter was dreary, to put it mildly, and The Great Gatsby might have been better if not forced into me, page by dull page, in high school English class.  I did get through Emma semi-voluntarily, based only on maternal urging, but (to put it in properly literary terms) it annoyed the crap out of me.  The same is true of almost every example of the genre that I think of as “Uppercrust Twits Obsessing.” Although Pride and Prejudice and its ilk make me desperately grateful to have been born in a time and place without crinolines, arranged marriages, or a need for me to refer to my husband as “Mr. Cable,” I still don’t want to read them.  (I’ll make an exception for Cold Comfort Farm, which is not only a brilliant parody, but also contains the memorable phrase, “You have a simply smashing set of unmentionables.”)
Jay, undaunted by my hesitation, continued touting Railsea.  It was, he elaborated, kind of sci-fi, and kind of steam-punk, and kind of post-apocalyptic.  It was written, he added, for young adults.
Now, that sounded a lot more tempting – and yet, at the same time, more embarrassing.  I’m forty.  I have a PhD and a career and all that.  Shouldn’t I want to read books that are intended for honest-to-goodness grownups, and that don’t involve wizards, spaceships, androids, or elves?
In the same vein, I’m not sure that the titles that I can wholeheartedly endorse from among the “100 Greatest” offer a more flattering reflection of my acumen than those that I can’t.  The stories I’ve enjoyed seem to be mostly children’s tales, satires, or farces – not a combination that speaks well of my intellectual prowess.  Sure, I loved The Lord of the Rings – who wouldn’t?  It has wizards AND elves!  I also enjoyed Gulliver’s Travels, Tom Jones, The BFG, Charlotte’s Web, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Little Women, Huckleberry Finn, The Wind in the Willows, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies.  Some of these I’ve loved more than once, and some I’ve already shared with my six-years-olds – but that doesn’t exactly confer genius status upon me, or qualify me to write novels of my own.
Writing.  Yes.  That.  The reality of my limited reading is all the more undermining because I so desperately want to write, and always have.  These days, I foist page upon page and chapter upon chapter of unpublished dross on the patient members of my writers’ group.  But even at the age of seven, I fancied myself a novelist when I won ten dollars (ten whole nineteen-eighty dollars!) from Huntington Public Library for Freddy Goes to a Baseball Game.  Three years later, I conned my poor mother into copy-typing almost a hundred pages of Summer Search, a tale of mystery, riddles, and adventure enjoyed by a set of not particularly intrepid fraternal twins. (Does that count as real-life foreshadowing?). 
For much of my childhood, books didn’t merely interest me, they consumed me.  I knew all the idiosyncratic rabbit-vocabulary in Watership Down, and I wept for heroic Justin in The Rats of NIMH, even though he was fictional…. and, you know, a rat.  I explored Pern on dragonback.  I visited countless other planets, and at least one neutron star, thanks to Robert Forward. 
I was as omnivorous as I was voracious.  I didn’t stick to “good” books.  Sometimes, I deigned to even touch them.  I tested out Nancy Drew before realizing that every mystery was pretty much the same.  I spent some time with Piers Anthony and Jean Auel before stumbling out, befuddled and chagrinned, on the other side of puberty.  But along the way, I found Jane Yolen.  I dug into Lois Lowry.  I spend days – weeks! – on Wildcat Island, and traveled through time with dangerously liberal Victorian E. Nesbit.  I discovered the ABCs of science fiction -- Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke -- and many more, less well known but equally visionary.  I plunged into the realms of my parents’ bookshelves, and kept myself nightmare-enhanced with Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Lolita.  Although more prone to the fanciful than the factual, I hit the nonfiction shelves long enough to meet Anne Frank and Stephen Hawking, and to educate myself about ancient Sumerian counting systems, edible wild plants, and innovative methods of cryptography. 
“I think you’d like Railsea,” Jay reiterated, then phlegmatically left it at that.
Ok.  Fine.  What was this book all about, anyhow?  I was already wasting time on line; I looked it up.
The novel, it seemed, was about moletrains.  And pirates.  It was about a young man named Sham Yes ap Soorap, and a one-armed woman with a vengeance-quest against a massive ivory-colored moldywarpe, and a discovery that just might turn an intricately imagined world inside-out.  This sounded not in the least bit literary, and immensely appealing – for its sheer weirdness, if nothing else.  
Upon reflection, it occurred to me that I am not actually anti-intellectual in my choices of reading material, but merely just as omnivorous as an adult as I was as a child.  Over the past twenty years, I’ve learned that I truly enjoy Shakespeare and Dickens, and I’ve relished a few others from that darned 100: Frankenstein, David Copperfield Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Call of the Wild, A Passage to India, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and On the Road.  On the other hand, I’ve also learned that I like Dave Barry, Bill Bryson, Dan Savage, George Martin, Terry Pratchett, Suzanne Collins, and a whole host of others who definitely don’t make it onto any highfalutin lists.  Many of them write, ostensibly, for children.  Most of the poetry I’ve read – not just in the first two decades of my life, but in the latter two as well -- was written by Shel Silverstein.
But – maybe that’s ok.  Young adult fiction, I realized, is written by writers who are at least as “real” as Herman Melville, and sometimes a great deal more so.  In the past few months, I’ve dived wholeheartedly into a dark comedy about a boy who goes on an epic quest while dying of mad cow disease; a gritty tale of children in a bleak future who strip vast beached tankers for scrap; a fanciful imagining of a semi-alive genetically engineered flying leviathan; an entire retelling of the Greek myths from the perspective of a teenager who discovers he’s one of Poseidon’s half-human bastards; the tangled adventures of a girl who has the power to read characters into and out of printed pages… oh, and so many more.  Yes, these are kids’ books.  I would love to be able to write half as well as their authors.  
Besides, deep down, I know that sticking to the esteemed ought-to-reads would, for me, destroy the decadent bliss of the sport.  Really, isn’t the joyful immersion what it’s all about?  The edification is only a byproduct.  It’s optional.  It’s the reading itself that spins words from the page, spins my brain, spins my galaxy, and makes me want to write.  And write.  And write.
There are a few classics on the Guardian’s list that I really would like to get to – given world enough, and time.  I will read them one day.  I really will.  In the meantime, though, I read Railsea.
It was quirky, wildly creative, and highly entertaining.  It made me think.  It helped me write.  It did, in fact, fairly wallow in Moby Dick references, allusions, motifs, and themes – but it did not foster in me any particular desire to crack open that classic, ever.  And… I’m just fine with that.
Sorry, Melville, but everything’s copacetic. Now, pardon me while I go looking for a Top 100 list that includes a whole lot of centaurs, quasars, subterranean kingdoms, and something containing the phrase, “You have a simply smashing set of unmentionables.”

No comments:

Post a Comment